The competition to be the nation’s worst Governor can’t be easy these days, especially when you’re going up against Florida Governor Ron “Where Woke Goes to Die” DeSantis.
DeSantis may try kill “woke” and undermine worker safety by whining about being forced to buy safety boots, but he’s no competition for Texas Governor Greg Abbott who is openly putting workers exposed to high heat at risk for their lives.
Texas is already the state with the most work-related heat deaths in the country.
But that’s not good enough for Gregg Abbott. Sometimes you just have to kill a few workers to make your political point.
Last Tuesday, Abbott signed the so-call “Death Star” bill that would allow the state to override any local government ordinances — including ordinances in Dallas and Austin that mandate water and rest breaks to protect construction workers from heat related illness and death.
Meanwhile, temperatures in Dallas this week will top over 100 degrees and heat indexes recently topped 120 degrees in the southern part of Texas, with the state breaking heat records on Thursday and Friday, amplifying concerns about worker safety.
Heat kills. We’ve known about that since sometime shortly after the 4th day of Creation when God created the sun, moon and stars.
But we also know how to prevent heat from killing workers: water, rest and shade. And for indoor workers, God, in her wisdom, created air conditioning.
So given the dangers of heat and easy ways to protect workers, why are Texas Republicans and Governor Abbott so anxious to pass legislation that ensure that more workers get sick and die?
According to its authors, HB2127, also known as the “Texas Regulatory Consistency Act,” would “provide statewide consistency by returning sovereign regulatory powers to the state where those powers belong in accordance with Section 5, Article XI, Texas Constitution.”
State Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) and Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) spearheaded the creation of House Bill 2127, which they say will help small businesses.
“For too long, progressive municipal officials and agencies have made Texas small businesses jump through contradictory and confusing hoops when it comes to the current hodgepodge of onerous and burdensome regulations,” Burrows said in a statement this year.
Now, all of us here at Confined Space World Headquarters have enormous sympathy for Texas employers who are straining themselves with all that of hoop jumping and hodgepodge dodging.
But on the other hand, workers are dying.
Since 2010, at least 53 Texas workers have died of heat-related illness, according to NPR and Columbia Journalism Investigations. Climate change has made the Texas heat worse. A report from the state’s climatologist estimates that the number of 100-degree days is expected to nearly double by 2036 compared to 2001-2020.
And its even worse for some groups of particularly vulnerable workers. “Advocates for worker protections point to especially vulnerable populations that call Texas home, including low-income and Latino immigrants who are less likely to communicate their discomfort or illness on the job.”
Since 2010, at least 53 Texas workers have died of heat-related illness
The most painful thing is that the the local regulations save lives.
Surveys of Dallas construction workers before the city’s ordinance was adopted found that 33% said they didn’t receive rest breaks and 66% said they didn’t receive water. At least 53 Texas workers died from heat-related illnesses between 2010 and 2020, according to a 2021 investigation by NPR, The Texas Newsroom, The California Newsroom, Public Health Watch and Columbia Journalism Investigations.
Research published in 2018 — eight years after Austin passed its rest-break ordinance — found that construction workers were 35% more likely to get a break because of the rule.
But for construction workers, it’s not just the heat. According to Dr. Ronda McCarthy, an occupational health specialist and medical director at health care provider Concentra in Waco,
“There’s much more than just the ambient temperature,” she said. “You have to think of so many other factors like what these workers are wearing — their hardhats, protective clothing, respirators — or whether they’re in direct heat or [if] they get shade.”
McCarthy said without rest-break rules, many workers may be afraid of losing their jobs if they speak up about needing a respite from the heat.
For Texas Republicans this is just a continuation of their normal anti-regulatory bigotry, but for workers, it could be a death sentence
Ideology over Evidence
What we have here is a victory for the same old tired Republican ideology over actual evidence. The irony is that the evidence shows that controlling heat actually saves employers money.
Just ask Concentra’s Ronda McCarthy.
According to McCarthy’s 2019 testimony before the House Education and Labor Committee, she implemented a multi-year Heat Stress Awareness Program in a Texas city based on NIOSH heat recommendations. The program resulted in a decline in a 50% decline in median workers’ compensation costs per heat-related illness. The total number of heat-related cases decreased after implementation, the frequency of heat-related illnesses decreased per year, and by the last two years, there were no reported heat-related illnesses during the hot season.
And protecting workers against heat is not “onerous and burdensome.” McCarthy’s program, which target the city’s outdoor workers whose jobs involved moderate to very heavy physical demands, was simple and inexpensive:
This program included unlimited access to cold water or sports drinks close to work site; providing canopies or other access to shade; supervisor and worker training, first aid and emergency response procedures ; establishing 3-4 day gradual heat acclimatization schedules for new workers or established workers returning from an absence during the hot season; altered work schedules to prevent physically demanding labor in the heat of the afternoon; heat-related emergency procedures; first aid protocols for immediate aid to employees displaying symptoms of heat-related illness in the field; worker education on how to communicate to supervisors and co-workers if help was needed; and medical monitoring. This program was specifically for outdoor workers whose job descriptions described requirements to work with exposure to extreme heat and humidity,
In other words, the Death Star bill is not about worker health, but it also isn’t about relieving mythical financial burdens on small employers. In fact, quite the opposite. Abbotts bill not only kills workers, it weakens the bottom lines of the state’s businesses.
Texas: Where Hodgepodge — and Justice — Go to Die
Saving lives is one thing, but life-saving heat protections aren’t the only local ordinances or proposals that Republicans are trying to eliminate in their anti-hodgepodge zeal. The bill would also prohibit cities or counties from passing ordinances concerning “employment leave, hiring practices, breaks, employment benefits, scheduling practices, and any other terms of employment that exceed or conflict with federal or state laws for employers other than a municipality or county.”
That would include local minimum wage and paid leave laws.
Other parts ordinances that could be affected by the new law include regulation of payday loan lenders, stricter bans on discrimination in hiring and housing and bans on plastic grocery bags. The new law even has the potential to affect how governments can react to natural disasters, including hurricanes that hit coastal areas of the state, critics have pointed out.
And as we all know, bad ideas don’t stay in one state. Prepare for imitations. Bad governors are in a race to the bottom to be even worse than their competitors. For example, last year, Ron DeSantis suspended an elected Tampa District Attorney from office because he had said he wasn’t going to enforce anti-abortion laws. Not to be out-demagogued, the Texas State Legislature just passed legislation allowing Abbott to remove local prosecutors.
The main target of Republicans’ wrath is the duly elected Travis County (Austin) District Attorney Jose Garza. Garza’s crime? A Travis County jury convicted Daniel Perry, 35, an Army sergeant, of murder in April in the fatal shooting of Garrett Foster during a demonstration in downtown Austin in July 2020. Abbott has promised to override the jury’s decision and pardon Foster. Garza has also indicted more than 20 Austin police officers for their actions during the violent 2020 riots.
One of the chief supporters of the anti-Garza law? State Sen. Brandon Creighton, who is also spearheaded the creation of the Death Star bill.
But I digress….
The Solution: A National OSHA Heat Standard
But Texas business leaders prefer to depend on weak OSHA voluntary guidance and arguments that make no sense:
Supporters of HB 2127 say that local regulations on breaks for construction workers are unnecessary because the right to a safe labor environment is already guaranteed through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Water breaks are better solved by OSHA controls, argued Geoffrey Tahuahua, president of Associated Builders and Contractors of Texas. Tahuahua believes local rules impose a rigid scheme that, unlike OSHA guidelines, does not allow the flexibility needed to tailor breaks to individual job site conditions.
“They try to make one size fits all, and that is not how it should work,” he said. “These ordinances just add confusion and encourage people to do the minimum instead of doing the right thing.”
Of course, the reality is there are no “OSHA controls.” OSHA currently has no enforceable standard to protect workers from heat illness or death, although the agency is working on a standard that may be issued in the next several years (assuming an intervening Republican administration doesn’t kill the standard.)
And an OSHA heat standard will not be a rigid “one size fits all,” it will require employers to develop a plan specific to their workplace and the specific environmental conditions workers face in that workplace.
At this point, OSHA must rely on the “General Duty Clause” to enforce safe working conditions where there are no standards. The General Duty Clause requires employers to provide a safe workplace, but it’s legally burdensome and is almost always used after a worker is hurt or killed.
“Under OSHA law, it is employers who are responsible to make sure workers are safe,” said Michaels, now a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health. “And we have compelling evidence that they are doing a very poor job because many workers are injured on the job, especially in Texas.”
Michaels pointed out that OSHA does not have a national standard for heat-related illnesses and issues citations only for over-exposure to heat after an injury or death, but not before that occurs.
“The better solution would be to have a national standard, but since we do not, local ordinances are very important for saving lives,” he said. “Prohibiting these local laws will result in workers being severely hurt or killed.”
Without OSHA, Locals Take Action
In fact, the lack of a national OSHA heat standard is the exact reason that the cities of Austin and Dallas decided to take action to protect their own construction workers. The states of California, Oregon and Washington have done the same. This is not a flaw of local government; it’s a feature. It’s what good politicians do to help their constituents instead of just their funders.
The fact that OSHA has no heat standard is the exact reason that the cities of Austin and Dallas decided to take action to protect their own construction workers, just as the states of California, Oregon and Washington have done.
So if Texas Republicans and the business community are so interested in regulatory “consistency” and protecting their employees, I’m assuming they will strongly support OSHA’s work on a national heat standard which will provide nationwide consistency. That way, a “hodgepodge” of various state heat laws will be eliminated. Texas companies who want to work across the state line in Oklahoma — or even California or Washington — will face the same heat regulations on both sides of the border.
Abbott isn’t satisfied by complaining and whining. He is a man of action, marching boldly forward, bravely signing legislation that will actually kill workers.
The bottom line is that if any Texas workers die because they weren’t able to get the breaks or water that Greg Abbott’s bill has repealed, their blood will be on his hands — and the hands of any legislator who voted for this legislation.
Congratulations Greg Abbott. You’re the Worst Governor of the Week.